My wife, Christy, recently asked me to write an article distinguishing the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist from the various Protestant views. When she asked, it occurred to me that this is a pretty important aspect of our theology because it touches the other views we might have. For example, how we see the Person of Christ in His humanity will affect how we view the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. Likewise, a false view of the Lord’s Supper may affect our view of the Person of Christ in His humanity.
The Roman Catholic view
The Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist is that the bread and the wine change into the body and blood of Christ. This is called transubstantiation. If we could put on our thinking-caps for a moment, we need to delve into some of the words Roman Catholics use to describe their view of the Lord’s Supper. For Catholics, there needs to be a hard distinction made between substance and accidents. The substance refers to the what the elements are, essentially, that is bread and wine. Their accidents refers to their appearance or how those elements are perceived by the participants. According to the Vatican:
At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread. . . .” “He took the cup filled with wine. . . .” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus in the Offertory we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” – gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering (Catechism, 1333. Emphasis added).
According to the Catholics, during the Eucharist the substance of the elements (i.e. bread and wine) turn into the body and blood of Christ while the accidents remain the same. The bread and wine substantively turn into the body and blood of Christ while they remain bread and wine in appearance (accidents). Much more could be said in describing their view, but this will do for our purposes.
The Lutheran view
Martin Luther saw the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist to be offensive from a biblical perspective; so he construed a different model of the Lord’s Supper called consubstantiation. In consubstantiation, the elements remain the same in substance and accidents, but in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ become substantially present in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine. Therefore, all of the participants partake of the body and blood of Christ in their partaking of the Supper. The Formula of Concord reads:
Q: In Communion, do we commune with the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus, or the resurrected body and blood of Jesus?
A: The answer to your question is that we receive in, with, and under the bread and wine the true body and blood of Christ shed on the cross, Jesus Christ Who is now risen and ascended and sits at the right hand of God the Father. He is the same Christ, and when he gave us the Sacrament, as the Lutheran Confessions affirm, “he was speaking of his true, essential body, which he gave into death for us, and of his true, essential blood, which was poured out for us on the tree of the cross for the forgiveness of sins” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration VII, 49).
Thus, rather than the substance of the elements changing they become accompanied by the substantial body and blood of Christ.
Two other Protestant views
There are two additional views worth mentioning. Huldrych Zwingli was a Reformer who, in reacting against the Roman Catholic view of transubstantiation, held to what we might call a strict memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. For Zwingli, communicants do not actually feast on the body and blood of Christ but partake of the Supper as a way of remembering the Lord and His work by faith.
The last view to be discussed is John Calvin’s view which would be the same view articulated by the 2nd London Confession (1689). In Calvin’s model, communicants receive the body and blood of the Lord by the Holy Spirit through faith. Yet, this receiving of the body and blood is not by virtue of Christ being substantially present in the elements, nor is it by virtue of a change in the elements. Rather, believers partake of the body and blood of Christ spiritually such that the Holy Spirit raises only believers––by means of their faith––to heaven in order to feast on Christ, who is the true spiritual food.
The 2nd London states:
30.7––Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses. ( 1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 )
This view helps to maintain the integrity of the biblical language. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves (Jn. 6:53).” There must be a sense in which we partake of Christ in the Supper, and this is best thought of in spiritual terms rather than according to carnal or corporeal categories.
Contra Zwingli’s view, Calvin and our Confession maintained the feasting on the body and blood of Christ instead of reducing the Supper to a mere memorial. Contra the Lutheran and Catholic views, Calvin and our Confession refused to bring the corporeal body and blood of Christ down from its rightful place in heaven.
The doctrine of Christ & the Lord’s Supper
Calvin’s view does more than carry the weight of Scriptural language, it also avoids mistakes in our theology of Christ. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity who took into union with Himself the fulness of a human nature, with its limitations and all. This is called the doctrine of the incarnation.
The incarnation, however, entails that Jesus, in His human nature, does not possess the incommunicable attributes entailed in His divine nature. According to His human nature, Jesus is a man. He is not omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent, but is constrained to the limits of finitude. This is not the case according to His divine nature. And in this talk of natures, I’d caution you to prioritize the Person of Christ, rather than the nature of Christ so as to not talk about the natures as if they are persons (a la. Nestorianism). The 2nd London states:
8.2––The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man. ( John 1:14; Galatians 4;4; Romans 8:3; Hebrews 2:14, 16, 17; Hebrews 4:15; Matthew 1:22, 23; Luke 1:27, 31, 35; Romans 9:5; 1 Timothy 2:5 )
Remember, the Son is a divine Person (first and foremost), who took into union with Himself the fulness of a human nature such that His divine nature is not impeded or changed in any way.
Following from this, in the Lord’s Supper we are dealing with the human nature of Christ. According to His divine nature, the Son is not composed of a body which may be feasted upon in any sense. However, in His human nature the Son has a physical body. If Jesus is a man, He cannot be omnipresent if indeed we are referring only to His human nature. If He cannot be omnipresent in His human nature, then the notion of the body and blood of Christ being divided up and presented to thousands of churches every Sunday makes little to no sense. Jesus, in His human nature, is locally present in heaven.
In Calvin’s view, we are not forced to bend this doctrine in order to fit our view of the Supper. Rather, it is the Spirit who transports us to Christ, that we may partake of Him by faith––not physically, not carnally, or corporeally––but spiritually.
The purpose of this article has been to distinguish various views of the Lord’s Supper from one another, not to necessarily argue one over the other. I do take the Confessional view of the Supper and so I did want to mention a few reasons as to why I think it’s most consistent with the Scriptures and the incarnation, but I would encourage any reader to delve deeper into this subject. It is an important one!
For more on Calvin’s view, check out: Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.